Family Puzzle

Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment, asks an interesting question: “How well do you think Americans in the main understand and empathize with low-income Americans?” He follows up with related questions, such as, “Do you think citizens who have never been incarcerated have an accurate sense of the actual lives lived by those who have?”

Pearlstein has been interviewing people on this subject for a book he’s writing. The topic is “how very high non-marital birthrates and divorce rates are contributing to deepening class divisions in the United States and what our nation might come to look like…as a result.” In his article for the Star Tribune, he discusses some of those conversations, and the lives they concern. He quotes one social services leader, who states:

I don’t think Americans know the depth and breadth of America’s really disorganized families, fragmented families, families where there are numbers of half-brothers and half-sisters and there’s no men in their lives.

They move frequently, and there are financial challenges all the time. People are frequently leaving households to go to one institution or another—a group home, prison or whatever—and then coming back. I don’t think most Americans, across the political spectrum, have a clue about that kind of instability.

Blessedly, I come from a stable family. But within my extended family, I have family members in jail, on government assistance and several are divorced. We certainly have our problems and our successes. Yet in reality, our lives are still much more put together than those who live within intergenerational poverty.

This means I have much more to learn about how “the other half” lives in our country and how best I can help my needy neighbors. I have lived in a working-class neighborhood for two years now, and that helps a little. It provokes more empathy, but also more antipathy as we are regularly robbed and vandalized. My neighbor, who used to open his pool to the community, took it down this summer because kids were walking into his yard when the family was not home, and he feared a dangerous accident. It is hard to know what to do in these situations.

     If American families come to be readily characterized by disorder, America will come to be less firmly rooted in ordered liberty.

In part, this is why I appreciated Pearstein’s previous book “From Family Collapse to America’s Decline,” because he treats a touchy subject very gently (Pearlstein is divorced and remarried, and has had other friends and family involved in similar behavior). But ultimately, Pearlstein connects nationwide family problems to both our economy and our morality, showing that they are detrimental to personal lives and our society’s health.

I don’t have answers for putting more unum back into E Pluribus Unum—Charles Murray’s thoughts in “Coming Apart” get closer than mine ever could. But if we don’t come to understand the true plight of those less fortunate than us, the consequences will be dire. Because “if American families come to be readily characterized by disorder, America will come to be less firmly rooted in ordered liberty.”